No party in an election campaign has a monopoly on wisdom; most have something important to say.
The Green Party is making a case for cleaner rivers and streams. The need for further action against farm run-off was conceded by National last week when it announced it would require cattle to be fenced from streams by July 2017 and would spend $100 million over 10 years to buy riparian strips through farmland for protective planting.
That solution is less drastic than it might sound. Dairy farmers are already obliged to fence stock from their waterways if they want Fonterra to buy their milk and Environment Minister Amy Adams noted in her announcement last week that 90 per cent of waterways have been fenced to date. But it was time to move to compulsion, she said. As Federated Farmers' dairy chairman Andrew Hoggard remarked, Fonterra's commercial threat is likely to be more effective. He called the ban cynical. It is timed to take effect two months after the target date for 100 per cent of streams to be fenced.
Cynical or not, it acknowledges the problem and the Greens say National's solution does not go far enough. Fences, and even planted riparian strips, cannot stop all the nitrates produced by the dairy industry being washed through soil by rain or irrigation and finding their way into rivers. The Greens say that nothing less than a reduction in cattle numbers can allow farmland to absorb the nitrates and other pollutants in their waste.
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This is an unwelcome message, not only to farmers who have invested in dairying over the past several decades but to everyone who knows the value of dairy exports to New Zealand's economy. Milk, particularly in powdered form, has been a spectacular success, especially in the burgeoning Chinese market, and all its prospects remain bright despite falling prices in recent months.
The Greens argue farmers can earn just as much from smaller herds if they count the costs they can save by buying less fertiliser and farming "smarter".
They claim that unless dairying becomes less intensive its pollution of freshwater resources will be self-destructive, clogging rivers and lakes with algal growth, rendering them unsafe for swimming and ruining the country's clean, green image. How serious is this?
Ideally, every watercourse in the country would be safe for swimming. But the country's earnings from intensive dairy production are also valuable. If there is a balance to be struck, it might reasonably fall some way short of a water quality standard requiring all rivers and streams to be safe for swimming. National has settled for a standard safe for no more than wading and boating. Fish in rivers should be safe to eat, too. But how many rural dwellers want to swim in a river?
If National's water standard offers a better balance, the Green's suggestions may be useful for enforcing the standard. Farms may need to be subject to a permit for stock numbers based on the nature of their soil and its drainage and the seasonal rainfall of their district. Irrigation may need permits too, and the Greens suggest a charge for the water drawn from rivers by irrigation schemes.
They are right that the Government should not be subsiding irrigation projects and providing free water for intensive dairying while proposing to spend $100 million trying to mitigate the nitrate run-off. With properly priced irrigation and better research on the soils of different districts, the country can continue to have both a growing dairy industry and clearer water in rivers and creeks. Whatever the make-up of the government after the election, the state of waterways in dairy regions looks certain to receive more attention.